FARO, Portugal – It’s not common, and certainly not usually ideal, to have one's first taste of an all-new grand tourer package from behind the wheel of a convertible derivative, most notably because of the relative compromises in structural rigidity commonly associated with drop-top creations. That said, given the eagerness with which BMW is rolling out its new 8 Series portfolio (including a Grand Coupé and associated M models to follow), perhaps it’s no surprise that my first full outing in the rebirthed 8 family was at the recent international launch of the (G14) M850i xDrive Convertible.
A week after its coupé cousin launched in South Africa to broadly favourable reviews, any first drive of a soft-top version would inevitable revolve around just how much of a compromise losing the stiffness offered by a fixed roof would have on the open-top version.
It’s to the credit of BMW’s inherently sturdy modern CLAR platform that the new 8 Convertible required only reinforcement in its cross struts, as well as imbedded roll-over protection and, obviously, the mechanics associated with raising and lowering a (canvas) roof in order to complete its transformation from coupé to drop-top. The total weight gained by the M850i Convertible over its coupé derivative (the only two 8 Series models currently offered in South Africa) is 125 kg.
Identical in its proportions (including height) as the M850i Coupé, the newest member of BMW’s luxury portfolio (together with the facelifted 7 Series and new X7) loses little in terms of visual appeal, both with the roof in place or, indeed, stowed. Replete with a standard M Performance package, the Convertible gains 20-inch alloy wheels, front spoiler extensions and Cerium Grey trim accents that bring it neatly in line with one of the most striking series designs in modern BMW history – not forgetting the good genes the 8 inherited from the previous 6 Series. Exclusively available for the 8 Convertible are two new exterior colour finishes, Carbon Black and Barcelona Blue.
Mirroring the cabin found in the M850i Coupé, there’s a lot to like about the interior of the drop-top version. From top-quality fit and finish to impressively comfortable full-leather front seats, I was quickly able to find a favourable driving position just low enough to feel nicely ensconced within a package that, despite its boulevard appeal, is capable of dispatching a 0-100 km/h sprint in just 3,9 seconds (0,2 seconds slower than the coupé). While a heating function on these front seats is a welcome touch, owners in climates ultimately cooler than ours can also opt for a neck warmer built into the headrests, as well as warmed armrests, door pockets and steering wheel.
Standard in black though also available in Anthracite silver, the canvas roof of the 8 Convertible can be raised or lowered in 15 seconds at speeds of up to 50 km/h. Testament to just how for soft-top technologies have come, I would hazard that the level of insulation and quietness offered by the 8’s raised roof lining is on a par with what some rivals struggle to achieve with a fixed roof.
There are pros and cons when it comes to sound once the M850i’s roof is lowered, though. For starters, where both myself and my well-spoken co-driver struggled to get BMW’s personal assistance to understand anything after an initial “Hey BMW” request with the roof in place, the inevitable ruffle of wind noise associated with top-down driving rendered this system all-but unworkable.
And then there’s the subject of engine note. Where in days gone by much of the appeal of lowering the roof of a V8-powered grand tourer would be in removing any filter between evocative exhaust note and finely tuned ear drums, you can largely credit modern emissions laws for the 390 kW/750 N.m turbocharged 4,4-litre V8 in the M850i Convertible sounding, dare I say it, decidedly monotone in its otherwise exceptional workings. Certainly, there are socially awkward (and real) pops and crackles to be called upon in Sport+ driving mode, but somehow the knowledge that most of the rest of the notes are, indeed, artificial taints the aural experience somewhat.
Left to its own wonderfully intuitive devices or operated manually via steering wheel-mounted paddles that could both look and feel a more expensive given the 8’s price tag, it’s the 8-speed ZF-sourced automatic transmission fitted to both M850i packages that threatens to steal the show. Able to settle into a wonderfully refined cruise or in the next breath instantly source the optimal ratio for blasting out of a slow-speed corner, it’s the fluid workings of this transmission that acts as conductor to the 850’s orchestra.
Fitted with a rear-biased xDrive all-wheel-drive system as standard, it’s once again credit to the 8 Series’ aforementioned underpinnings, including CFRP (carbon-fibre reinforced plastic) around its centre tunnel, that the open-top 8 displayed no side-effects of its missing roof when it came to fast changes of direction, both flowing and slow-speed, over the course of my twisty Algarve test route. With an M Sport differential, Integral Active (rear-wheel) Steering and an adaptive M suspension included in the package, I’d find it difficult to believe the coupé offers discernibly superior levels of handling prowess compared with the convertible.
It’s the reason, in this rare case, I think my first experience of the modern 8 Series package may well have been in the best derivative to date...
FAST FACTSModel: BMW M850i xDrive Convertible Steptronic
Price: R2 009 860
Engine: Twin turbocharged, 4,4-litre V8
Power: 390 kW @ 5 500 - 6 000 r/min
Torque: 750 N.m @ 1 800 - 4 600 r/min
0-100 km/h: 3,9 secs
Top Speed: 250 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 10,6 L/100 km
CO2: 243 g/km
Transmission: 8-spd automatic
Maintenance Plan: 5 year/100 000 km